Every hero needs a villain. Superman has Lex Luthor, Harry Potter has Voldemort, Holmes has Moriarty. And in all the great stories, the really mythic ones, the hero is usually disturbingly similar to the villain. Itâ€™s like the protagonist and antagonist are peering into a funhouse mirror when they look at each otherâ€¦and theyâ€™re both disgusted at what they see.
Iâ€™m sure that somewhere deep down, MAD Magazine publisher William M. Gaines realized he was pretty much the same person as Dr. Frederick Wertham. The same, but â€“ you know â€“ different. Because Gaines was the hero, and Wertham was the villain. Only, mainstream American society saw it the other way â€˜round. Sort of.
In 1952, when MAD was first created, it was just one title in Gainesâ€™s vast comic book empire, which was called EC Comics. EC stood for Entertaining Comics, and thatâ€™s exactly what they were â€“ grisly horror titles like Tales From the Crypt and inventive sci-fi anthols like Weird Science. Some parents and educators thought these EC comics were corrupting our children.
One of the loudest voices in the â€œcomics are Eeeevilâ€? chorus belonged to noted psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertham. Long story short, Werthamâ€™s bestselling anti-comics diatribe Seduction of the Innocent led to a nationwide panic, with parents and teachers all over America forbidding kids from reading comic books. And the only title EC was able to keep publishing when the smoke cleared was its harmless little humor title MAD, which escaped Werthamâ€™s wrath by not being as overtly subversive as the other EC comics (had he but known!), and which escaped censorship by morphing into a â€œslickâ€? magazine.
But hereâ€™s the sad part. Wertham and Gaines were really playing on the same team. And itâ€™s a shame that neither man realized it. Wertham, a supporter of the civil rights movement and a champion of social justice, was just trying to do right by the nationâ€™s children. So was Gaines, by refusing to talk down to the nationâ€™s youth. In fact, with Tales From the Crypt et al, it could be argued he was giving kids a psychologically healthy outlet for their fears and aggression.
Both men had a soft spot for the younger generation. Both were Jews. Both were avowed atheists. And both refused to back down. Iâ€™m told that towards the end of Werthamâ€™s life, he admitted that heâ€™s probably overreacted about the harmful effects of comic books. But itâ€™s a shame that Gaines and Wertham couldnâ€™t have just gotten together and had a beer, and put the whole thing behind them. In another world, perhaps an alternate Bizarro universe somewhere, maybe the Bizarro Gaines and the Bizarro Wertham are best pals. Hey, I can dream, canâ€™t I?
Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD Magazine who also writes for film, TV, and comics. Arieâ€™s first book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, is in bookstores now. His second book, chronicling the history of Jews in comic books, will be published in fall 2008 from JPS. Check out his website, http://www.ariekaplan.com/.